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May 9, 2024, 3:51 p.m.
Reporting & Production

“We’re there to cover what’s happening”: How student journalists are covering campus protests

“We don’t come in when there’s something crazy happening and then leave when it’s over. This is just what we do all the time. And I really hope that makes people trust us more as a newspaper.”

In a normal year, the last Thursday of April might have been a quiet day for Northeastern, and for junior Eli Curwin. It was the penultimate day of undergraduate student exams for spring classes, and, like many students, Curwin was set to return home the next day. Just a week before, he had handed off the reins and responsibility of his role as editor-in-chief of the independent student newspaper, The Huntington News.

But this has not been a normal year for students on college campuses. Late Wednesday night, Huntington News staff heard that students were planning to set up an encampment like the ones being erected on campuses across the country calling for universities to, among other demands, divest from Israel amid the ongoing war in Gaza. The Northeastern encampment, like others, quickly captured national attention — especially early Saturday morning, when police arrested about 100 protestors (including 29 Northeastern students and six faculty and staff) and dismantled it. So the encampment’s setup Thursday morning kicked off a cycle of multi-day, round-the-clock reporting for Curwin and The Huntington News team.

“It was very intense, and you kind of just were full of adrenaline until you had to step away,” he said. Yet as a reporting experience, “it was really cool, because it was like, this is what we’ve been learning about; this is what we’ve been practicing for.”

For years, student journalism has gained increasing recognition as a critical source of local news, especially as local news outlets nationwide shutter at an alarming, and accelerating, pace. But in the past few weeks, Curwin is one of the thousands of student journalists across the country who have gone above and beyond — in many cases during finals and outside of their normal production schedules, at a time of the year usually reserved for celebration and leadership transitions — to cover the historic protests that have exploded on college campuses across the country, sparked by the first encampment at Columbia. These journalists have reported the story for national publications, and shot unforgettable photographs documenting the protests and violent arrests. The Pulitzer Prize Board recognized student journalists across the country, and specifically at Columbia (where the prizes are housed) for “covering protests and unrest in the face of great personal and academic risk.”

I talked with editors from four independent student newspapers — The Huntington News, The Daily Texan at UT Austin, the Daily Trojan at the University of Southern California, and The GW Hatchet at George Washington University — about how they’ve approached this highly sensitive, nonstop reporting for their campus communities under immense pressure and a national spotlight.

Doing the work: From live blogs, to social media, to print, to pulling out the archives

Reporting on protests dating back to October on George Washington University’s campus has “been a big learning curve,” recent Hatchet editor-in-chief Zach Blackburn told me. But protest reporting has also unexpectedly combined several core Hatchet beats, especially once Congress got involved, raising issues related to D.C. statehood and longstanding tensions between local police and the campus community.

The Hatchet’s work documenting the encampment is “really a culmination of what we’ve been trying to report on the last few years,” Blackburn said.

Blackburn had passed the editor-in-chief mantle to Grace Chinowsky on April 29, when the Hatchet published its final print edition of the semester. But he and managing editor Nick Pasion decided with Chinowsky that they’d stay on in a temporary “staff editor” role to “help edit and make editorial decisions as this continues to unfold.”

The final Sunday of print, and Blackburn’s last official night of production as EIC, took place on day 4 of GW’s encampment (the Hatchet prints weekly). As the final week of the semester, this should have been a “ghost week” for the Hatchet. Instead, Blackburn and his outgoing leadership team stayed up until 8 a.m. and essentially scrapped their planned print paper after protestors knocked down barricades surrounding the encampment and stood off with police.

That was “a make it or break it moment for us,” Blackburn said. “We got the papers out the next day with photos of things that had happened eight hours prior.”

The Daily Texan, at UT Austin, and USC’s Daily Trojan can both relate to a high-stakes final night of production. (Print aside, the Trojan and the Texan are two of seven campus publications nationwide that collaborated on a photo essay capturing and weaving together scenes of protests on their campuses.)

“Our last night of print is usually a party, because at the end of the day, we are students,” Daily Texan associate managing editor and sophomore Ireland Blouin told me. The team would typically have news prepublished so they could celebrate the semester’s work and give out awards. This year, the newsroom set that aside to produce coverage of the first day of protests.

USC’s encampment was established the same day, which was also the Daily Trojan’s final night of print production for the semester. Editor-in-chief Anjali Patel — a graduating senior — said the publication pulled together three day-of stories focused on different angles of the encampment, and sent the paper to print around 3 a.m.

Late print nights notwithstanding, these publications have mostly focused on to-the-minute, digital-first reporting, and have leaned on a live-blog update format to keep pace with the firehose of developing news.

Sonel Cutler, Curwin’s successor as Huntington News editor-in-chief, has been covering encampments nationally for the Chronicle of Higher Education as part of her full-time internship there in Washington, D.C. this semester. So she’s coordinated Northeastern encampment coverage from afar, in collaboration with Curwin. The publication’s live updates page was central to their encampment coverage.

The Huntington News first began relying on a live feed for its reporting well before the encampment, shortly after October 7. Curwin and Cutler worked closely to create the first live blog last fall, which helped them keep track of key context and keep pace with developments like protests, petitions, and otherwise newsworthy organized actions. They personally took on much of the work of keeping it updated. “We realized it was a little bit unsustainable to try to write a separate reported article for every single thing that was happening on our campus,” Cutler said.

Since the GW encampment lasted almost two weeks, the Hatchet adapted by creating a different live blog for each day of the protest. “Three of our live blogs from the last week have gotten more traffic than any other articles since I’ve been here,” Blackburn told me last Thursday.

The Huntington News’ encampment live updates story had more than 11,300 views as of this week, Cutler told me.1 (While that’s high for the publication, it’s not a record — the outlet’s most-read story from the past 30 days covers the death of a student and has nothing to do with the protests. An “average campus story,” meanwhile, gets around 350 website views.)

The Hatchet created a spreadsheet to coordinate stationing both a reporter and a photographer at the encampment at all times, with shifts lasting anywhere from three to eight hours. When GW had barricades up, the rotating Hatchet reporters were the only people the administration allowed in and out of the encampment, Blackburn said.

When Curwin and Cutler got tips around 4:30 a.m. Saturday morning about police coming to Northeastern’s campus, they had about half a dozen journalists on the ground — a few reporters, a couple social media editors, and a photographer. Those journalists sent all information to their Encampment Slack channel, which Curwin then used to live-tweet everything (checking back to clarify numbers and other details as he sifted through the information), while Cutler and a managing editor focused on getting the same information onto the live blog from Curwin’s tweets. Social media editors on the ground created Instagram stories and other live social media updates.

The Huntington News editors emphasize the importance of social-first coverage, especially on Instagram, for reaching student readers. The website, they say, is more useful to parents and faculty. (Cutler said she thinks most students don’t click through to the News’ webpage.) Twitter and Instagram are their most viewed and used social channels. Patel and Blouin also cited those two platforms as key focuses for the Daily Trojan and The Daily Texan.

The Huntington News’ Instagram page has gained about 500 new followers since the encampment began; its Twitter/X account has gained about 300 followers. “Broader Boston [or] unaffiliated individuals tend to find our content on Twitter,” Cutler said. The publication also saw additional engagement with protest coverage via social media from alumni and some parents.

 

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A post shared by The Huntington News (@huntnewsnu)

Reporters from The Huntington News, The Hatchet, and The Daily Texan are also taking a page out of the past, literally, by using their archives to report stories based on previous instances of historic campus activism. The Huntington News contacted its own reporter alumni from the 1960s for context and comparison to Vietnam War protests and the university’s response then. The Hatchet recently published a story highlighting student activism over the years (and a Hatchet alumna stopped by to drop off a 1968 edition of the paper).

Reporting under pressure and earning trust

“People don’t often want to talk to us,” the Hatchet’s Blackburn said. Since October, “we’ve had a lot of conversations with Jewish students, and Muslim students, and pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel students, just to make sure that we can get the coverage right.”

Curwin and Cutler are both Jewish, and Curwin has family in Israel. Well before October 7, “this issue has been…something I constantly think about,” Curwin told me. The divided campus, “people constantly criticizing or scrutinizing our coverage,” and his personal background all amounted to “a very stressful semester.”

Many of the critical Instagram comments the publication has received are along the lines of “you guys must hate Jewish people,” as Curwin said, or “you don’t care about Jewish voices,” as Cutler put it. They, like all five student journalists I spoke with across four publications, described a deep commitment to doing their best to represent everyone’s perspectives fairly and accurately.

One reason Curwin and Cutler became so involved in the live blog starting last fall was because often, “the people who would want to cover protests were people who really cared about the subject or were involved in student groups that were advocating,” Cutler said. They took on more reporting duties to try to keep the publication’s coverage as fair as possible.

Curwin has faced plenty of media distrust from protestors, but it hasn’t fazed or deterred him — he understands it, to some extent, and has taken the need to minimize harm and accurately capture points of view seriously. “The people who are at these protests have a lot of qualms with Western media…misrepresenting their points of view, not doing a good enough job showing what’s happening in Gaza,” he reflected. The Huntington News, he said, is up against “an embedded hostility toward the idea of external media trying to report what’s going on objectively.” (Many students, he said, get their news from the Huskies for a Free Palestine Instagram page.) Even though The Huntington News is an independent, student-run outlet, protesting students may see reporters with press badges as “both intimidating and a bit scary. They don’t want to get in trouble. They don’t want to get their pictures taken or get their quotes taken out of context.”

Over the course of the encampment, though, Curwin believes The Huntington News has earned more trust, and protesting students have been more willing to be interviewed. “We have to be a trusted news source for everyone here,” he said. He wants protesting students to “feel like they can trust us to do a good job reflecting their points of view.”

Still, Cutler and Curwin both think many students misunderstand what journalists do. Groups have asked the News to post statements as standalone “news,” for instance, and the paper has been criticized for covering Israeli counter-protestors at all. “We’re there to cover what’s happening, regardless of anyone’s point of view,” Curwin said.

As for communications with the university itself, Blouin, of the Texan, and Curwin and Cutler said that during the protests, university PR has communicated more promptly and consistently with them than usual.

“Honestly, they haven’t been as bad as before,” Blouin said dryly, in terms of the university administration’s responsiveness.

“As soon as the encampment appeared to be something that was going to dominate our campus’ reputation — as soon as our media team understood that this is going to be the story about Northeastern for the next several days — they became incredibly responsive and quite open with information,” Curwin said. On Thursday, when he was at the encampment, he was able to walk right up to the university spokesperson, who was in the same place watching the encampment.

On the other hand, accessing police reports from the Northeastern police department has proved extremely frustrating, Curwin said, because the department is private, and the university has not shared the police report for the arrests on Saturday.

And at the Hatchet, Blackburn recently shared a list of the outlet’s questions that had gone unanswered by GW administration.

Leniency toward anonymity to get a story

The four student publications have found many students are unwilling to speak to press without anonymity. (That’s been noticed by national news outlets, too. And at The Harvard Crimson, a disagreement over anonymity contributed to tensions between the protestors and the student publication.)

Typically, “we’re pretty big on not letting people be anonymous,” Blouin said. But in this particular protest, “people are worried about their safety” and the publication has adjusted its policy so it can include more perspectives. When Texan staff reviewed archival coverage of historic protests on their last night of production, “we saw there was a lot of understanding about people being anonymous,” which helped inform their leniency to meet the reporting moment.

Since October 7, well before the encampments, “I know that our most strenuous conversations among senior staff were like, ‘Okay, how do we deal with the fact that…every single person we talk to wants to be anonymous?’” Curwin said. During the encampment, “there came a point where we just knew that no one was going to talk to us if they needed to say their names…at some point, in order to accurately document what was happening and to reflect what people were thinking, we needed to let people speak anonymously,” he said. For instance, The Huntington News could not have reported protestors’ fears of a police raid ahead of time without allowing anonymity, because no one would have been willing to attach their name to the information.

In general, “most people in the encampment are deciding not to talk with us on the record. And there’s nothing we can do about that,” Blackburn said. “But we’re trying to balance that with the fact that we’re also trying to highlight as many voices of protestors as we can. And so at times, we use anonymous sources.” The Hatchet hasn’t adjusted its policy on anonymity, he noted — “we still only grant anonymity when there’s a general threat or fear of retaliation,” but there’s been an increase in students requesting, and receiving it, on those grounds.

A deepened appreciation for student journalism’s role

The trial-by-fire experience of reporting on student encampments and protests has strengthened students journalists’ conviction that student media is an essential form of local news.

“It’s confirmed, to me, the value of being in the community that you report on,” Blackburn said. “I think our coverage has been as good or better [than that of] many of the professional newspapers” that have come to campus.

“In terms of professional opportunity, I think that these are some of the best clips I’ll ever have, in any newsroom,” Curwin said.

“We had several of the reporters who spent two days at the encampment say they learned more covering this than in two years of classes,” Cutler added.

“A bunch of news outlets have been on campus when there are things happening, and leave right after,” Curwin reflected. Student journalists stick around — and unlike national media, they are part of the same community as the people protesting, the people who disagree with the protests, and everyone in between, which makes reporting on everyone with sensitivity and empathy especially important. “A student could get arrested, we could report about it, and then I could see them in class like the next day,” Curwin said. “These are students, and these are people that are just like us.”

“I hope people recognize that we are here to stay on the campus,” Cutler said. “We don’t come in when there’s something crazy happening and then leave when it’s over. This is just what we do all the time. And I really hope that makes people trust us more as a newspaper.”

Photo of police arresting a protestor at UT Austin by Irisoptical on Wikimedia Commons.

  1. The publication has published around a dozen encampment-related reported stories, which have a combined total of close to 33,000 views as of this week, Cutler added. ↩︎
Sophie Culpepper is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sophie@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@s_peppered).
POSTED     May 9, 2024, 3:51 p.m.
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